Study Guide

History of American Fashion People

  • James Dean

    James Dean (1931–1955) was an actor who embodied the restless spirit of American youth in the 1950s and quickly became an icon of popular culture after his tragic death in a car accident in California. 

    He starred in only three films: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956). In the first two, he played a rebellious son, and in Rebel, he wore the T-shirt and jeans that would become fashion icons for young people of Dean's own generation and every generation since.

  • Christian Dior

    Christian Dior (1905–1957) was a famous French fashion designer who headquartered his couture label in Paris in 1946. The following year, he debuted the "New Look" which established his reputation: it has been described as "narrow shoulders, constricted waist, emphasized bust, and long, wide skirt."

  • Paul Poiret

    Paul Poiret (1879–1944) was the most popular designer of the pre-World War I period, perhaps best known for his hobble (or pencil) skirt design, a vertical, tight-bottomed style that forced women to walk by taking tiny steps. He also revived the Empire style that was originally in vogue during the Napoleonic era of the early 1800s. 

    His penchant for draping fabric on the female body served to offer up an alternative to the constriction of the corset. Poiret's decadent and theatrical designs employed all manner of embellishments, from fox-fur stoles to long strands of pearls and multicolored feathers. 

    Poiret designed for European royalty during the early-20th century, but his popularity declined after the war, and he lost his business and his fortune in 1929. He died penniless and bitter in 1944.

  • Clara Lemlich Shavelson

    Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886–1982) was a labor activist and an organizer for the shirtwaist workers in early-20th century New York. She'd already been arrested 17 times and suffered repeated beatings from police when she took the podium to argue for a strike at the shirtwaist workers' meeting at Cooper Union on November 22nd, 1909. 

    Lemlich spoke to the workers—many of them young Jewish girls—in Yiddish about the terrible factory conditions and the need for a strike. Over 20,000 shirtwaist makers walked out the next day.

    Shavelson was born Clara Lemlich in 1886 in Gorodok, Ukraine, to religious Jewish parents. Her family immigrated to the United States around 1905. Soon after, Lemlich began organizing unskilled women into the new International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, despite protests from skilled male workers. 

    After the famous shirtwaist makers' strike, she helped to found the Wage Earner's League for Woman Suffrage, a working-class suffrage group. In 1913, she married printer Arthur Shavelson and moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the couple had three children. Clara Shavelson continued to agitate for issues concerning food, housing, and sanitation. She joined the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the New York City rent-strike movement in 1919. She became a member of the Communist Party in 1926 and co-founded the United Council of Working Class Women, which became the Progressive Women's Councils in 1935, when she served as its president. 

    In 1944, Shavelson returned to the garment trade after her husband Arthur became ill. She was summoned to Washington to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, and had her passport revoked by the State Department for her radical political beliefs.

  • Brooke Shields

    Brooke Shields (1965–) is a veteran actress and model who started out as a child star, having modeled since she was less than one year old. 

    Shields has starred in several films, including Pretty Baby (1978)—where she played a 12-year-old prostitute—and the box-office hit The Blue Lagoon (1980). She's perhaps most famous for her starring role in the notorious Calvin Klein jeans advertising campaign of 1980 to '82. She appeared from multiple angles in tight-fitting jeans, reading double-entendre lines such as "You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." 

    Shields was just 16 at the time, and New York City's WCBS-TV and WABC-TV banned that particular commercial in response to listener complaints. However, Calvin Klein reported a 300% increase in sales revenues over a 90-day period.

  • Levi Strauss

    Levi Strauss (1829–1902), originally named Loeb Strauss, was a Bavarian immigrant who during the California Gold Rush went into business as a dry goods wholesaler on San Francisco's Market Street. 

    In 1853, Strauss began making durable trousers for the miners from heavy brown cloth. His firm later switched materials and created the first denim blue jeans in 1873, catering to working men who needed tough garments that would withstand hard manual labor (the company's slogan in 1900 was "For Men Who Toil"). Levi Strauss & Co. has since become the world's largest pants manufacturer.

    All Levi's 501 jeans feature copper rivets on pocket corners. Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor, devised this innovation around 1872, when one of his customers complained that her husband was wearing through his pants too quickly. Davis secured the husband's pockets with copper rivets, and other tailors emulated his design. 

    Davis couldn't afford the paperwork to patent his idea, and the demand for riveted pockets was already outpacing his capabilities. So, instead, he joined up with his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, and the two jointly applied for a patent. Davis soon moved to San Francisco to oversee manufacturing of the pants, which they called Copper Riveted Waist Overalls. If the rivets gave out, customers were guaranteed a new pair, free of charge. 

    Today, company spokesmen claim that the denim overalls "were so popular that miners and prospectors would say, 'Have you heard about these pants coming from Levi's?' Over time, the name just stuck."

  • André Leon Talley

    André Leon Talley (1948–) is the former editor-at-large of Vogue magazine, and one of the most internationally recognizable figures in the fashion industry. Talley was the magazine's creative director in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he proclaimed that his mantra was "opulence, opulence, opulence."

    Talley was born in Washington, D.C. and later raised by his grandmother in North Carolina following the divorce of his parents. His grandmother—who cleaned the men's dormitories at Duke University for a living—bought him the best clothes for church. After services, Talley would walk to the white section of town in order to buy the New York Times so that he could gaze at its fashion sketches by the dynamic designer Antonio Lopez. 

    Talley wrote his master's thesis on Baudelaire at Brown University, but he has claimed fashion as his first love since he was a teenager.